I know we’ve danced around the topics of language use and social responsibility, so let’s go right to the heart of the beast: what about “the ‘N’ word”? As writers, we know more than others the power of words.

Linda: I haven’t yet written anything that uses the N word, but I’ve read work that used it effectively and other work that didn’t. I can’t say I’ll never use the N word in a piece, perhaps tomorrow I’ll write a poem where that word is needed to say what is coming through me. Depending on how it’s used it can be very powerful or demeaning. Writing is a gift. We each have to honor gifts given by God. I believe in walking the path of least resistance. When I write I let words sing through me without editing. Then I sit down to rewrite. There are many words that are powerful. I respect these words. This is one of them.

L.R.: I don’t think we should use the “N” word at all. But, I also think we shouldn’t curse. That’s not to say I haven’t stubbed my toe and yelled out, “shit” or that I haven’t been cutoff in traffic and muttered the word “asshole” under my breath. That being said, in a perfect world a lot of things shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen. Our world is far from perfect. And, in writing, we need to tell the truth, even if we’re writing fiction. And, the truth is, the word exists, it means different things to different people, and it’s still used very often.

Chesya: Personally, it’s banned in my house and in my mouth… but if the character calls for it, then I use it the way the character would from his/her reality. I “try” not to use it in my work, but if I’m doing gansters in a situation, if that’s how they speak, that’s how they speak.

Wrath: I say it/write it when it’s appropriate and feels natural coming from that character. If it’s forced it’s insulting. The reader can tell when you are just trying to be hip or controversial and with a word that incindiary it should just not be done. Even after I’ve taken pains to use it only where and when it is natural and appropriate I still usually go through and replace it with “Brother” or “Dog” where I can just to avoid using it too excessively. I’m leery of making it sound acceptable and advocating it’s use because I don’t find the word acceptable. It is however a reality and avoiding it can sometimes make your writing ring false.

Michelle: I don’t use the “N” word and I don’t buy into the theory that its repeated use somehow diminishes its negative power. There’s some amount of ugly that just will never be erased, and in my opinion, shouldn’t be. We never want to send the message that it’s ok to come up with ways to offend and abuse an entire group of people because somewhere down the line all will be forgiven. I don’t disparage writers who do use it, as long as it serves a specific purpose. If I were writing an historical piece, I might use it sparingly–most likely to jar the reader out of some sort of complacency or idealized vision of “the good ol’ days.” But to throw it around like the latest and greatest slang word I think is irresponsible.

Brandon: I’ve used the “n” word numerous times in my stories. I don’t have any compunctions about it. Again–I strive to be honest in my work. And the honest truth is that a lot of black people (and non-black folk) use the “n” word. We can tapdance around the issue all we want, but that’s the truth. If I’m writing about a certain kind of character, he may use this word, because that’s part of his background. I’m not going to sugarcoat these kinds of things in order to avoid some perceived societal taboo. I’m going to write what I feel is the truth.

As a lesson to newbies just beginning to pick up their pens, are there any particular obstacles we face as black writers?

Chesya: White people. [Editor’s note: have I mentioned how tough it can be to get your friends to give you straight answers?]

Linda: I haven’t faced any particular obstacles as a black writer in horror. Once I started attending conventions I was treated very fairly by other writers and publishers in the field. There is so much unfairness in the world. Humans have the choice to act humanely or not. To be human is to realize that no one is different: we each bled, want to love and be loved. To act less than human is to put down another person because of some perceived difference, whether because of their race or sex. Using the race card or sex card is not irrelevant yet, unfortunately.

Wrath: I think the biggest obstacle we face is walking that line between “Black” and “Writer”. Most of the pressure there is internal, “Do I keep it real or do I sell-out?” “What is selling-out?” “What is keeping it real?” “Am I keeping it too real?” But of course there is always the struggle between staying true to your art and being cognizant of certain economic realities, namely that the largest consumers of horror fiction are not African-Americans.

Michelle: I think our primary obstacle as writers is the same one that blacks in general face. And that is that race relations in America are stagnant, and in danger of slipping backwards. America’s early history was an epic horror story. It took a century after emancipation for changes to be made, and where are we now? America is still so preoccupied with race–and black/white relations in particular–that we’re still counting “firsts” for blacks. The fact that we have so much “hate crime” that we have to create legislature for it is disturbing, not comforting. At what point does race become an aside, and not the focus of a person’s being/achievement? I want to write and be read and be appreciated for my talent in telling a story. Period. Whatever labels are appended to my achievement are just that–labels. They may have their uses, but I think black writers face the possibility of being marginalized, because we are fighting preconceptions about what sells and to whom. We need to acknowledge that we are black writers, and then I think we need to work hard to redefine what that means, in our own terms.

With all the different theme anthologies, I can’t believe that “black writers only” anthologies would get criticized as exclusionist, unnecessary, silly, or even insulting. (Well, yeah I can: affirmative action. You say those two words and I get to hear all the “my white dad got passed over for a promotion by a less qualified ‘minority du jour’”. Same criticisms, different context). My heart wants to believe that we are to the point where people judge works based on the work itself. Yet my gut tells me that it boils down to fear of someone else cutting into an alread
y shrinking pie, rather than being seen as someone trying to bake a bigger one. The quiet insinuation is that the final product must be inferior or else these writers would have gotten their stories into other markets.
Are we passed the point of being able to use the race card? Does it, in fact, hinder us?

L.R.: I don’t know if we’ve passed the point of being able to use it. But, if using it prevents us from doing our best work, then yes, it is a hindrance. At the end of the day, the only thing we really have control over is what we write. Once it’s bought, edited and published, it’s a whole other story. But, like anything else, our work starts with a seed, and I think we have to be very careful that we’re using water to grow it, not vinegar.

Wrath: Anyone who thinks that race is not a factor is obviously deluded … either that or white. That being said, I don’t think that you are going to get any breaks from anyone by virtue of being a minority and playing off the guilt of the ruling class. I don’t even know what it means to “Play the race card.” I can’t see where you can ever get any type of leverage in the business world by calling someone a racist. No one is going to publish someone because they’re afraid that if they didn’t they’d be called a racist. I don’t think most people care anymore. There seems to be this cavalier attitude towards racism in America as if they’ve given us enough sympathy and have absorbed enough guilt and are sick of it. There’s a backlash of resentment now from many white people from having been demonized in our society for so long. This backlash could definitely prove detrimental. Racism in a way is almost becoming fashionable now. Racists are the new rebels.

Lawanna: To hell with the “race card” thing. There are certain truths, and one is that minority writers of any race have to fight harder to get their stories out there.

Michelle: I guess it depends on how it’s used. I think it can certainly hinder us; the affirmative action backlash out here in California is an example of that. And we definitely need to avoid getting into “crying wolf” scenarios with race. We do more damage to ourselves and our credibility than any of the truly ignorant and evil bigots out there could ever do when we fall into that trap. That being said, I do see race as one of many marketing tools. And if it gives me an edge with an editor, publication, etc. looking to promote “diverse” voices and experiences, you better believe I’m going to let them know I’m black. But it doesn’t mean I trumpet it across the front page with the admonition that they have to pick me if they’re really committed to diversity.

L.A.: I think we face market challenges in publishing that one faces in general, but if we let that stop us, then we would still be back in slavery. We’re very resilient and creative. Self publishing as a boom shows that will to create and step over narrow perspectives that want to keep us within a certain box.

I would like to thank these fine writers for taking the time to answer a few of my questions. I look forward, as I’m sure all horror fans do, to reading any of your future stories.

The Black Horror Writers Round-Table Discussion Guide:

Black Horror Writers I – A Little Help from My Friends
Black Horror Writers II – Defining Ourselves
Black Horror Writers III – The Black Market?
Black Horror Writers IV – What We Do
Black Horror Writers V – Black Characters
Black Horror Writers VI – The “N” Word and Other Obstacles

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